Recovery And The Notion Of ‘Life Debt’

Recovery and the Notion of ‘Life Debt’

Almost everybody’s seen Gilligan’s Island, that sitcom about the zany, lovable bunch of castaways who depart from a tropic port for a three-hour tour but end up stranded on an uncharted, desert isle.  In one particular episode, Gilligan jumps into the lagoon to rescue a native girl, who promptly declares herself Gilligan’s servant for life.  Hilarity ensues, but the whole story is really a riff on what in modern times we call a “life debt,” i.e., a supposed obligation or debt that someone incurs when their life is saved.  

Now, as children we believed a lot of things.  We were willing to suspend our disbelief when The Professor built electronic gadgets out of bamboo and coconuts, but something about the life debt in this episode actually struck us as familiar.  We may have recognized it because the idea has been a running theme in television for more than half a century.  There probably isn’t a year since Gilligan’s Island where it can’t be found in at least one TV show.  It pops up in movies too.  As for literature, well, beginning with Homer’s Odyssey (circa 250 B.C.), the inclusion of this idea in written works dwarfs all other mediums of communication.  It’s a really common theme.

In fact, the notion of life debt is so pervasive that there are people who think that it’s simply an overused, fictional idea.  These people see it as a classic example of a “MacGuffin,” a plot device to catch the audience’s attention and drive the story along.  Even Wikipedia defines it as a “literary” phenomenon.  They think it makes for easy fiction but doesn’t have much to do with the real world.

If we’re thinking about a life debt arising from a chance meeting of two parties, then this may be correct.  The idea of a Good Samaritan trying to impose a life debt upon another seems indecorous, at best.  It certainly wouldn’t be a very popular policy.  After all, there’s been no negotiations, and no meeting of the minds about services and payment. If things were otherwise, then picking up stray banana peels might be a lucrative profession.  Even Superman says “It’s all in a day’s work.”  In like manner, we naturally expect people like our first responders to be as humble as they are heroic.  True, we want these public servants to be well-compensated and to feel our deepest thanks.  Demanding gifts from people whose lives are saved, however, is beneath the dignity of those professions. 

Despite the foregoing, there is a very real life debt that we as a society both applaud and encourage.  It arises neither through social custom nor legal obligation, but it is immensely powerful nevertheless.   This is the life debt that proceeds from the heart of someone filled with gratitude because their life has been saved.  It is felt as an irresistible impulse to pay-it-forward, so to speak, especially where the benefit might help others similarly situated.  

The more obvious examples of this are found in certain charitable organizations at work right here in the United States.  One example, discovered during our research for this article, is a prominent charity founded by a U.S. veteran.  Following a pitched battle, the veteran flatly told the person who saved his life, “I owe you a life debt.”  Upon returning home, he not only repaid his life debt to the other but also founded a charity that has gone on to save thousands of other lives since.  In addition to this example, we also noted some cancer charities and several “survivor” charities that were started because the founder’s life had been saved.  In the hearts of such persons, a flame was lit to pay-it-forward, and that flame remained undiminished by time or any obstacles.

To us at CORE, there is still another example, which we will name: Alcoholics Anonymous.  We have a written history of this from “AA Number Three” in the Big Book’s personal stories.  Number Three refers to the first person that AA founders Bill W and Dr. Bob helped get sober – Bill D, an Akron attorney and city councilman.  In his personal story, Mr. D recounts a visit from Bill W where the latter said, “the Lord has been so wonderful to me, curing me of this terrible disease, that I just want to keep talking about it and telling people.”  Mr. D never forgot that.  Bill W was expressing pure gratitude, and Mr. D etched the recollection into his memory as golden text.  His story concludes with a discussion of his involvement in AA’s mission and work.  He had discovered within himself the same gratitude as Bill W.

Bill W and Bill D are not isolated cases.  We believe, from our own experiences and those of others, that every individual who recovers from addiction or alcoholism by working the 12 Steps is driven to live a similar life of active thankfulness.  We are in the possession of an immensely valuable gift, and we are compelled to share it with anyone who might benefit thereby.  It is the same motivation that prompted the writing of the Big Book to begin with:

We are like passengers of a great liner the moment after rescue from shipwreck when camaraderie, joyousness and democracy pervade the vessel from steerage to Captain’s table.  . . .The tremendous fact for every one of us is that we have discovered a common solution.  We have a way out on which we can absolutely agree, and upon which we can join in brotherly and harmonious action.  This is the great news this book carries to those who suffer from alcoholism.

Why such gratitude?  We have talked about this elsewhere – the sense of release from a life of futility and misery, and the pervasive feeling of happiness and contentment in all things.  In every AA meeting there is a reading of the so-called Eighth Step Promises.  They include the ideas of freedom, happiness, serenity, peace, purposefulness, and selflessness, among other things.  Thus, not only have our lives literally been saved when we recover, but all of these promises come true as well.

There is another reason that is less commonly discussed, moreover.  For the recovered individual, every waking moment serves as a reminder to be thankful.  We have one among us, for example, who remembers beginning his mornings after drinking bouts long ago.  He always awoke nauseated and sick to his stomach.  It took real effort to make it to the bathroom.  That’s where his daily routine began, trying to get down enough alcohol that he could even physically function.  The bathroom was the only room for this, because accidents often happen when one is so sick.  He contrasts those memories with his morning routine today, where his morning meditations often happen in the kitchen while coffee is brewing.  Outside of the kitchen window there might be deer, turkeys, or other critters to watch.  There is a field next door, too, where mommy cows and baby calves live.  It’s just one simple experience, of course, but the contrast readily reminds our friend to begin his days grateful to God for recovery.

Indeed, for everybody who has recovered, there is an entire days worth of events that make us thankful.  Whatever occupies us – whether working, playing, helping others, waking, sleeping, talking to friends, meeting strangers, cleaning up, doing the laundry, cooking, eating, reading, dressing, or watching TV – it doesn’t matter, because we always have a point of reference that brings to mind instant gratitude.  We live mindful of the incredible blessings that God has bestowed upon us.  

Thankfulness naturally calls for action.  Our thoughts are toward helping others, especially imparting the same 12 Step program of action that saved us.  We understand that gratitude, to be vital, must be accompanied by self-sacrifice and unselfish, constructive action.  It may mean the loss of a night’s sleep, interference with our personal lives, or even interruptions to our businesses.  It may mean trips to courts, rehabs, hospitals, and jails.  Our telephones may ring at any time of the day or night.  Above all, we make a point of spending time with others, especially newcomers, helping them understand the program and how it works in our lives.  We are a blessed people, and this is a life debt that we count ourselves fortunate to bear.